Is energy the god of progress?

American historian Henry Adams' optimistic creed of progress and energy innovation foundered on technological forces unleashed in the 20th century.
'The Progress of Steam. A View in Regent's Park, 1831', 1828. Steam-powered coaches, horses, tricycles, including one with body like a teapot, are speeding along or blowing up and causing traffic chaos in Regent's Park, London. Aquatint after Henry Alken (1774-1851).
'The Progress of Steam. A View in Regent's Park, 1831', 1828. Steam-powered coaches, horses, tricycles, including one with body like a teapot, are speeding along or blowing up and causing traffic chaos in Regent's Park, London. Aquatint after Henry Alken (1774-1851). Credit: Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images
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The American historian Henry Adams – grandson of one American president and great grandson of another but not himself equipped for political life – was determined to understand the perplexities of the modern world. The longer he lived, the more he structured that endeavour around comprehending energy. His memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, is in part a lament about his failed search for an education fit for the world as it had become in the age of steam, let alone the electro-magnetic civilisation that he watched dawn at the start of the twentieth century.

Before 1893, when he turned fifty-five, his symbol for the changes in energy he had observed was the ocean steamer. He could give the ocean steamer’s advancing horsepower a history; he could project that horsepower forwards to the future where he assumed the limits to its growth would eventually be reached and coal supplies would become depleted. But confronted with the dynamos that would generate electric power for industry at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, he anticipated the possibility of ‘infinite costless energy within a generation’.

This acceleration was, Adams was certain, bringing an American world. With the United States on the cusp of surpassing the British empire’s coal output, he had already foreseen ‘the crossing of courses, and the lead of American energies’. In Chicago, he perceived a ‘rupture of historical sequence’ and inhaled from the notion that ‘the new American world could take [a] sharp and conscious twist towards ideals’. When John Hay, the American Secretary of State, persuaded the European great powers to accept his ‘Open door’ policy for China in 1900, Adams wrote that his life-long friend had ‘set the Washington government at the head of civilisation’. After Russia had reduced Hay’s ambitions to ruins by entrenching its military forces in Manchuria, Adams worried that ‘twenty-million-horse-power [American] society’ faced ‘a vast continental mass of inert motion … which … consciously moved by mechanical gravitation alone.’ Hay’s task, he judged, was to break the Russian-German alliance over China and bind Germany into the Atlantic world that ran ‘from Hammerfest to Cherbourg on one shore of the ocean – from Halifax to Norfolk on the other … ruled by one great Emperor – Coal’. When three years later, Hay brokered a settlement to the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war, Adams countenanced a notion that with Russia ‘about to be dragged into [the Atlantic] combine … for the first time in fifteen hundred years a true Roman pax was in sight’.

Yet twentieth-century energy also cast a huge shadow for Adams over any possibility of order. The acceleration in the development of energy risked a future where Atlantic civilisation would fall, as Rome had, from using too much energy too quickly. This time the final stakes were, as he wrote to his brother, ‘an ultimate, colossal, cosmic collapse’: papers found after his death showed this general dread manifested as a specific fear that nuclear fission would destroy humanity in an atomic explosion.

During the years he lived in the twentieth century, Adams’ obsession with energy took an explicitly religious turn. This came in part because he had previously cast the rapid material advancement of the nineteenth century in the same terms. He had been taken the American World Fairs and European Expositions as expressions of providential Progress. Those who attended were ‘pilgrims’. The consciousness of anyone taking the pilgrimage was moving towards the idea of infinite energy. The dynamo, the ‘symbol of infinity’, was ‘a moral force’ to which before the 1900 Exposition ended, Adams had begun to pray.

But his encounter with electro-magnetic radiation at that same Exposition also shattered his prior presumption of unity in the universe. Adams cast the new dynamos and the x-ray equipment in the Gallery of Machines in 1900 as ‘irrational’ and ‘little short of parricidal in their wicked ways towards science’. His friend the physicist Samuel Langley ‘constantly repeated’ to him ‘that the new forces were anarchical’. Bewildered, Adams was left in a ‘multiverse’ where he could see no relationship at all between the human mind and mechanical forces.

Thereafter, Adams propelled himself back into medieval France and the idea of the Virgin Mary as a divine source of human energy. No longer a pilgrim of material Progress, he became certain that ‘all the steam in the world could not like the Virgin, build Chartres.’ Since ‘in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as a force’, this return to Europe as the ‘Virgin’s pilgrim’ took him far away from the idea that human progress was American progress. At the 1904 St Louis World Fair with its ‘long lines of white palaces, exquisitely lighted by thousands on thousands of graceful candles’, he just about allowed himself to hope that there was, after all, ‘almost a scheme for progress’. The temptation to recant was ephemeral. Once back in France, he revelled that the Virgin could still close the St Louis Exposition on a Sunday.  

Yet his new energy pilgrimage soon took him back to the same incomprehension at the universe as the x-rays. While he was in the north-eastern French town of Troyes – home to the medieval European trade fairs – he heard news of the Russian Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve’s assassination at the hands of a revolutionary socialist. Left wondering if ‘assassination’ was ‘forever to be the last word of Progress’, he concluded that the Virgin’s existence was futile when ‘after nineteen hundred years, the world was bloodier than when she was born’.

In despair, he devised a Dynamic Theory of History that ‘t[ook] for granted ‘[that] the forces of nature capture man’. In an age where human beings had become entirely dependent on external energy, ‘the imagination must’, he suggested – paraphrasing the seventeenth-century English scientist Francis Bacon – ‘be given not wings but weights’.

This was not because human beings lacked power. Indeed, the children ‘of incalculable coal-power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy … must be a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature’. Rather, it was because the immense reservoirs of energy now in play were ‘attracting mankind with more compulsive course than all the Pontic Seas or Gods or Gold that ever existed’. Paradoxically, in summoning this material power, Adams insisted, human beings had only emboldened nature: ‘Everyday Nature violently revolted, causing so-called accident with enormous destruction of property and life, while plainly laughing at man, who helplessly groaned and shrieked and shuddered, but never for a single instant could stop’.

Adam’s final fatalism appears to belong in our own age of climate nightmares. His equation of energy with salvationist hopes and apocalyptic fears also runs through the modern age. Bleak House might be one of the great anti-millenarian novels. But when comparing the American manufacturing town of Lowell in Massachusetts powered by water to coal-fuelled English industrial cities, Dickens could still invoke a contrast in American Notes ‘between Good and Evil, the living light and the deepest shadow’ and ‘abjure’ his readers ‘to remember how the precious Time is rushing by’.

Adams’ ruminations demonstrate that attaching such metaphysical symbolism to energy can blind. In conjuring the dynamo into a cosmic symbol, he missed the material point explained to him by Langley that the dynamo facilitated the conveyance of the heat of coal from one place to another. In his thinking about world affairs, he might have noticed that rather than representing the birth of a new god, electricity helped create a highly internationalised world economy, defined by cross-border investment and cross-corporate ownership and one that intensified the geopolitical competition between Britain and Germany.

In turning his eyes away from the material realm, Adams sat with those progressive Americans, who saw electricity as a political force for ethical progress. But since the primary energy source for electricity in the first half of twentieth century America would be coal, not hydropower, electricity simply put distance between the consumption of secondary energy and the materiality of primary energy extraction and conversion. As an idea, electricity encouraged illusions about clean as much as limitless energy; actual fossil-fuel-generated electricity would drive the revolt of nature to which we are now subject.

In rendering electricity a cosmic change, Adams also missed that there was a hugely geopolitically consequential energy change taking place in the early twentieth century: the use of oil, not coal, in naval ships. The dark alternative he saw to Hay’s supposed American pax was the catastrophe of a ‘continent against continent in arms’. But when such a conflict came, it was one where the protagonists fought with, and in the war in the Middle East, over oil. There could be no Atlantic oil ‘combine’ because, except for Austria, none of the European powers had any. Oil would resurrect to a version of hunter gathering, except this time presided over by brutal empires. It, not steam power or electricity, was what made the twentieth century the American century.

But for all Adams’ errors, he did understand that not thinking about what energy is, or societies using it while being ignorant about it, risks calamitous consequences. The reckoning with modern energy he feared has come about, albeit not in the form he envisaged.

As it does, there is perhaps something to be said for being propelled by the urgency of understanding present dangers into the past not as a place of refuge but in search of wisdom and the solace of continuity. When, adrift in the twentieth-century multiverse, Adams reached back into medieval Christianity, he elevated Thomas Aquinas over both twentieth century science and Augustine because – as he wrote in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres – ‘the hive of Saint Thomas sheltered God and man, mind and matter, the universe and the atom, the one and the multiple, within the walls of a harmonious home’. Adams lamented that he was living too late to dwell in the interlude of Aquinas’ faith. But contrary to the faith in Progress expressed in the Expositions, fossil fuel energy allied to science did not change everything in civilisation’s relationship to nature, or in Aquinas’ terms mind to matter. Floods brought about by human-driven climate change are still forces of nature that bring suffering and visceral fear. As Augustine, more attuned to the world and nature’s vicissitudes than Aquinas, wrote in The City of God, ‘no people has ever been granted such security as would free them from the dread of attacks hostile to this life’. In our very modern energy predicaments, to which in their specific substance the past can be no guide, we are, in this respect, like all human beings who have ever lived.

Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. She contributes a fortnightly column to the New Statesman and is a regular contributor to the Talking Politics podcast.

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